Sunday, September 13, 2015

Sermon: "Rhythm: A Pattern for Our Life", Genesis 1:1-2:3 (September 13, 2015)

(9/13/2015; read in conjunction with responsive scripture below)
(Part two of a three part sermon series about music in the church)
(Video of this sermon, including the responsive reading)

It’s funny, isn’t it, how much rhythms permeate the very substance of our lives? From the sound of that first heartbeat in the womb to the repeated contractions that bring each of us into the world. From the pattern of wobbly first steps to the rhythmic pounding of feet on a marathon run. From the slowed breathing of a child drifting off to sleep to the slowed breathing of the dying drifting into God’s arms, human life is made up of rhythms.

The ancient writers of scripture seemed to recognize the importance of life’s rhythms, too. Whether you read it as a literal history or as a metaphorical account of God’s creation, there’s no denying the beauty and balance in the flow of Genesis’ first creation story: God desires something. God declares it into existence. God recognizes the creation as good. God names it. And this divinely instituted pattern becomes what is one of our most basic human rhythms: a day.

In our responsive reading today, I deliberately had you all reading the parts of scripture that represent these basic elements of the creation. First, because it makes it easier for us to distinguish between the actual actions of the creation story and the narrative description, therefore giving us a clearer sense of the rhythm. Second, because I wanted us to be able to more easily see how the pattern develops as the account goes on. In the beginning, when God creates the simpler, binary aspects of creation—light and dark, the sky and the earth, waters and dry land—the language is also simple. There is a recognizable melody to the music of creation. So recognizable, in fact, that I bet that many of us could recite the first day more or less from memory. As the nature of creation—and God’s relationship with the created—becomes more complex, so does the pattern. This harmony swells and expands until, at the climax of the story, God makes humankind and gives them—us—dominion over and care for all the rest of God’s beloved creation. To the now-familiar pattern of creation already established, God adds a new element—a blessing and charge for those created in God’s own image. And finally, as the act of creation draws to a close, God concludes the rhythm begun in chaos and movement with stillness and rest. And so we see that from day one, God has created us to live within rhythms and patterns.

It's little wonder, then, that we Christians build our common lives around rhythms that reflect those first experienced in creation. God created us to be beings of pattern, and the Church has willingly obliged from its very beginnings. The early Church structured its day around periods of scheduled prayer, much as modern Muslims do today. Some Christian traditions, particularly monastic traditions, still do this. Also, as you all obviously know, most mainline Christians observe the pattern of gathering for community worship at the same time each week, simultaneously revering the Sabbath of creation and the resurrection of Christ on a regular basis. On a larger scale, our year is marked by liturgical seasons, each with its own color, theological focus, and unique celebrations. Even the very span of our lives follows ritualistic patterns: we mark birth, spiritual adulthood, marriage, and death with sacramental rituals that, although not necessarily repeated within one’s lifetime, keep time with the rhythm of humanity that cycles just as surely as that first week of creation.

And yet, as predictable and comfortable as these rhythms may be, and as beautifully represented as they are in the beginning of Genesis, they aren’t all there is. Life is indeed made up of intricate rhythms that cycle over and over again, but they simultaneously ebb and flow as they move us forward in our relationships with God and with one another. As the third chapter of Ecclesiastes reminds us, life’s rhythm is constantly changing even as we move through the familiar patterns: one moment is a time for weeping, and the next may be a time for laughter. One season we may be called to mourn, and the next, to dance. One day we make war, and the next, peace.

This can be disconcerting for a species that puts so much stock in making sense out of the world. We HATE it when the patterns that we’ve put so much care into establishing and recognizing are disrupted. And the unfortunate thing is, this disruption is just as much a part of life as the patterns are. We are complex creatures with free will and a personal relationship with our creator—of course things don’t always go the way we expect them to. So our challenge—both as individuals and as a community—is to make sense out of both the patterns and the chaos of life.

Music, it seems to me, is a natural way of accomplishing this end. Through it, we are able to bring order to the sometimes messy rhythms of human life. Music provides structure and rules in a way that still allows for creativity and newness—much as God does through creation. When we make music, whether it’s through composing, playing an instrument, or congregational singing, we are in fact participating in an act of creation that helps us to understand how it is that seemingly simple patterns can actually be so intricate, how rhythms can exist in tension with one another, and how the expected can take surprising turns.

On a more visceral and less intellectual level, music also connects us deeply to the rhythms of our lives in a way that is difficult to put into words. The other day, I was driving in my car when a song from a different season of my life came on my iPod. It nearly brought me to tears. Suddenly, images from that era flooded my memory and I spent the next several minutes reflecting how I had been changed both by and since that time. Within the span of a single four-minute song, the ebb and flow of my life was laid out bare before me, and I understood its rhythm more clearly in that moment than I could have if I had spent the entire day ruminating on it.

And in the Church, don’t we do the same thing? Don’t our shared hymnals, as much as our shared scripture, help us to sense, locate, and live into the God-given patterns of our lives? Don’t we know, almost instinctually, that when sing the Doxology each week, we are declaring the role of one bigger than us in our lives? Don’t our hearts leap with the sense of our call when we hear, “Here I am, Lord” on Mission Sunday? Don’t we feel, when we sing “Joy to the World” (as we will be doing towards the end of worship today), the overwhelming comfort and joy of knowing that our Lord has come, is coming, and will come again to rule the world with truth and love? Don’t we sense our place in the world, in the year, the community, our own hearts, a little bit more clearly through the music that we share?

Participating in creation—and connecting with our place in it on an emotional level—through music is one of the most profound ways that we as human beings make sense out of life. And much like scripture, part of the beauty of music is that it doesn’t have to be scientific, to tell us facts, in order to tell us TRUTHS about the patterns surrounding us. We can learn about ourselves, our lives, and our God through the structured chaos of music, the abstract wisdom of our shared songs, whether they are the ancient Psalms of our ancestors, a classic hymn from our parents’ childhood, or the newest praise ballad you just learned at First Light Worship. The rhythm of our music reflects the rhythm of our lives and allows us to access it with an understanding deeper than our conscious comprehension.

Life is complicated. But rather than trying to control it or alter its patterns that we don’t understand or don’t like, we can embrace its complexity and the holiness that’s at its source. We can give thanks that we don’t all need to be professional theologians to appreciate the truth of life’s rhythms conveyed through a hymn. We can surrender to the mystery that we participate in each time we celebrate Christ’s real presence with us through the turning of the weeks and seasons and years. Let us pray that together, we always embrace the gift of music, whose rhythms give voice to the rhythms of humanity echoing from creation through today and all eternity.


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